Around Christmas time, we hear the account of the birth of Christ. Born to a virgin in the city of David, (Bethlehem) the baby is visited by three wise men. Alright, some may say, "I've heard it before." Regardless, there are a few common misconceptions about the Christmas Story - when the wise men/magi visited - and how many there were. (Photo credit to: Better Living Through Beowulf)
The account of the wise men can be found in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 2. The following text is what we know about the wise men, (NIV) "After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, 'Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.' When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him." (Matthew 2:1-3)
"When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. 'In Bethlehem in Judea,' they replied, 'for this is what the prophet has written:' ' But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the clans of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.' Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, 'Go and make careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.' " (Matthew 2:4-8)
"After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route." (Matthew 2:9-12)
Now that we have the account of the magi, traditionally wise men or kings, we may better determine the following: when did the magi visit Jesus, and how many were there? Also, does prophecy (which makes up 30% of the Bible, and ought not to be ignored but explored) say anything about these things? Verse 1 says, "After Jesus was born in Bethlehem," and verse 11 says, "On coming to the house..." Matthew seems to be indicating that Jesus, Mary and Joseph had been in Bethlehem long enough to find a house.
But there is more on this. Matthew 3:16, "When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi." (Emphasis added) We have already determined that Christ was visited by the Magi a while after his birth - these passages seem to indicate that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had been living in Bethlehem for about two years. So the magi came to visit between the birth of Christ and the age of two.
Though their names and numbers are not explicitly stated in the Gospel, the wise men have become known as three wise men, named Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. First off, why the different names? Were they kings, wise men, or magi?
The Greek word μαγοι (mάgoi) is translated as “wise men” in the NKJV, KJV, and ESV, whereas the NASB and the NIV translation use the word “magi.” Originally, the word typically referred to Persian wise men, (possibly priests) who were interpreters of special signs, especially astrology-wise.
The belief that the magi were kings comes from a prophecy found in Isaiah 60:3, "Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn." Christians seem divided on whether these magi were Kings or not. Films such as The Nativity Story do portray these characters in that light - though at the same time portray the wise men visiting the night of his birth, and we know it could not have been the night of his birth.
Even if they arrived in Jerusalem the night of Christ's birth, it is a six mile journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, so it would have been the next day at the latest. But it is assumed that the wise men came from Persia. There is a prophecy found in Psalm 72:10 which says, "May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores bring tribute to him. May the kings of Sheba and Seba present him with gifts." This verse also seems to be referring to the wise men, though it is controversial, and some scholars do not believe it is referring to the wise men.
Regardless, these magi had most likely known of the prophecy of Balaam, "I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob, a scepter will rise out of Israel..." (Numbers 24:17a) It was most likely because of this prophecy, and perhaps the prophecies about the Messiah found in Isaiah that the magi knew a very special star would herald the birth of the Messiah, and that he would be born king of the Jews.
The view of having three wise men, magi, or kings, comes from the fact that three gifts were presented to Jesus at his house: Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. Frankly, scholars are not sure how many magi there were. We know there were at least two, because when they are referred to in Matthew 2 and 3, it is with, "we," "they," the like. Therefore, we have determined that there were at least 2 magi, perhaps 3 or more with them, and that they came to visit Christ sometime after his birth.
Regardless of the number of magi or when they visited - we must not forget why we celebrate Christmas. We celebrate the birth of the Messiah, the entering of the Creator into his creation, to live a sinless life and become the sacrifice for us all, so that in him we may have life. I trust this entry has proven informative and insightful. Thank you for taking the time to read this entry. Feel free to comment below, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the facebook page. Take care, and may God bless, dear reader. Troy Hillman